Before you read this, I must confess: Trevor Linden may be my favorite player of all time.
I grew up watching hockey on the west coast in the 1980s. The Edmonton Oilers reigned supreme back then, and Wayne Gretzky was everybody's favorite. I also had a serious infatuation with Soviet hockey players long before they were allowed to play in the NHL.
I quickly became a pretty sophisticated fan of the entire league. And I've always had the history bug, allowing me to respect the legends that preceded my time.
But I was always a Vancouver Canucks fan, which was anything but easy for most of the 1980s. It was not until Trevor Linden's arrival that I finally had someone to truly admire. No disrespect to Tony Tanti, my other favorite Canuck of the 80s, but in so many ways Trevor Linden became the player I admired most.
In comparison to Gretzky and the Soviets, Linden may seem an odd choice. Linden was not flashy or high skilled, not a great scorer or a flawless skater. He was essentially a hard worker, the personification of selflessness, an unquantifiable hockeyist who excelled in intangibles, effort and class.
He was also a great person - the kind of person we all want to be. Perhaps that drew me to him as much as his hockey. His charity efforts, his tireless effort on the ice, and his genuine likability off of it.
I had first heard of Trevor Linden back when he was still in junior. Not being located anywhere near a WHL team at the time, Linden may have been the first junior superstar I had really learned of. So when Linden came to Vancouver, so too did a lot hope, at least in my heart.
I was not disappointed. And, by no small coincidence, probably for the first time in my adolescence of hockey, I truly realized just how much I loved this game.
Eye of the Tigers
Trevor Linden was drafted 2nd overall in the 1988 entry draft after leading his hometown Medicine Hat Tigers to 2 consecutive Memorial Cup Championships. He also played a major part as an international member of Canada's gold medal-winning team at 1988 World Junior Championships.
The following season Trevor not only made the NHL, but was an instant success. As the youngest player in the entire league, Linden would play a dogged physical game while setting a then-team rookie record of 30 goals, including a couple of hat tricks. His trophy case quickly filled as he won the Cyclone Taylor award (Canucks MVP- first rookie to win) and Molson Cup (most three star selections). He was also named as The Hockey News' rookie of the year, however he finished as runner-up to Brian Leetch for the NHL's Calder Trophy.
The 1989-90 saw Trevor slip slightly into the dreaded "sophomore jinx." The season was ended with a separated shoulder injury. Trevor recorded 20 goals and 31 assists.
The 1990-91 season saw him rebound as he was named as one of the 'tri-captains' with Dan Quinn and Stan Smyl, whom Linden credited, along with Harold Snepsts, as his mentor. One of his best nights of his career occurred on Dec 20 vs. Edmonton when he scored 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) in one game. Linden was also the youngest player at the NHL all star game. Although the Canucks missed the playoffs, Trevor was asked to represent Canada at World Championships in Finland and was also invited to Team Canada tryouts at Canada Cup '91.
Before the beginning of the 1991-92 season, Linden was named as the new team captain, making him the youngest captain in the National Hockey League. The 21 year old Linden would go on to lead the team in scoring for the 2nd straight year. It also was the first season of Canuck dominance. Captain Canuck guided the team to a 42-26-12 record. The 96 points gave the Canucks their first Smythe Division title since 1975. The following season Linden would lead the team to another 1st place finish based on a 46-29-9 record for the team's first 100+ point season.
The 1994 Stanley Cup
Linden led the Canucks to the team's greatest moment in 1994 - game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. After a relatively disappointing 85 point, 2nd place finish, the Canucks caught fire in the playoffs. After falling behind 3-1 in the opening round against Calgary, the Canucks stormed back to win 4 games to 3 and then would blow by Dallas and Toronto to face Mark Messier, Mike Keenan and the New York Rangers. Lead by Linden's leadership and physical play, Pavel Bure's goal scoring and Kirk McLean's incredible goaltending, the Canucks took the Rangers to 7 games. The final game was as close as could possibly be. Had Nathan Lafeyette's third period shot hit the inside of the goalpost instead of the outside, perhaps the Canucks could have forced overtime. Unfortunately, the Canucks would lose game 7 by a score of 3 goals to 2, both scored by Trevor Linden.
The iconic photograph of an exhausted and bloodied Trevor Linden congratulating Kirk McLean after a victory in Game 6 remains the quintessential image of the franchise. Linden was literally beat up in that Finals, playing with bruised badly damaged ribs that made it hard to get up and down, let alone battle for the Stanley Cup. Mark Messier inflicted more pain when he attacked Linden late in Game 6, drawing blood with a high stick before turning back to drive his stick into Linden's ribs. Somehow all of that went unnoticed by the refs and league, while Linden crawled in agonizing pain back to the bench.
But there was never any doubting Linden would lead the Canucks into battle in game 7.
"He'll play! You know he'll play," exclaimed the Canucks beloved radio announcer Jim Robson. It may be the most famous audio clip in Canucks history.
Play he did. He set the tone physically and scoring both Vancouver goals that night. He played so well he was even named as the first star of that game seven. Trevor Linden had undoubtedly earned the respect of everyone in hockey. Unfortunately the New York Rangers would win that game. The pain of the loss that night was far worse than cracked ribs and broken noses.
Mr. Nice Guy
1995-96 would prove to be Trevor's best season statistically as he would set career highs in goals (33) assists (47) and points (80). But as anyone who knows Trevor, his value is not determined by statistical output, but rather by intangibles.
At the conclusion of the season, Linden was named the winner of the King Clancy Memorial Trophy as "the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made noteworthy humanitarian contributions to his community." Linden started "Captain's Crew," which gave children who would not otherwise have the chance the opportunity to attend Canuck games. He also is a big supporter of Canuck Place hospice, the Ronald McDonald House, Youth Against Violence and Children's Hospital. Linden would also win the Gillette World Champion Award, given to the Canadian athlete demonstrating athletic excellence, sportsmanship and humanitarian contributions.
1996-97 was a tough season for Linden, and marked the downward trend in his career. The season started out great as he was part of the World Cup version of Team Canada. The disappointing loss to the Americans was just the first of several disappointments for Linden. His league leading ironman streak came to a finish, at 482 games as Trevor was seriously injured (knee) for first time in his career. The injury meant he would produce career lows in goals (9), points (40) and penalty minutes (27).
1997-98 saw the arrival of Mark Messier, considered by many to be the greatest captain in North American sports, although Canucks fan would come to doubt that. As a sign of true leadership, Trevor handed the team captaincy over to Mark Messier prior to start of season. To hand over something so important and so honored as the captaincy of a NHL team shows that Linden was more concerned with the good of the team than his own ego.
Trevor would wind up with a nagging groin injury that Mike Keenan would conveniently use that to place Linden in his famous doghouse, and soon traded Linden, once thought to be the most untouchable Canuck, to the New York Islanders in exchange for Brian McCabe, Todd Bertuzzi and a draft pick.
One day after being traded, Linden headed to Nagano as a member of the first ever Olympic Team Canada that included the top 25 Canadian born NHL players. Linden would score the only goal in Canada's disappointing loss to Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic.
Linden was named captain of the New York Islanders after only 4 games on Long Island. Just weeks later Linden would become president of the National Hockey League Players Association.
Trevor would get into some hot water soon after becoming president of the NHLPA as he signed what many considered to be an undervalued contract of $2.5 million US a season, the same money he made on his previous contract. Linden's unconventional decision was looked upon with pleasant surprise by hockey fans everywhere. In an era when more and more hockey players hold out demanding millions and millions of dollars, Linden was comfortable with what he had and just wanted to play hockey. However because he was president of the NHLPA, it created unrest among union breakers.
Trevor's stay on Long Island was ultimately short, which was a good thing for Trevor. With a joke for ownership, the Islanders were simply dumping salary after salary and it was clear they had no intention of icing a competitive hockey team. Linden was traded to the fabled Montreal Canadiens in exchange for the Habs 1st round pick in 1999, 10th overall.
While Linden endured tumultuous times as a member of the Islanders, having to cope with several off-ice disruptions, including disputes over ownership and problems with the team’s home arena, the forward still has some regrets in leaving the club.
At one time Linden was the NHL's active consecutive games played leader, but injuries continue to haunt Linden in Montreal. A severe ankle injury hindered his play for much of the season. As a result, he had another poor offensive season with another weak team.
Linden, a natural right winger, was shifted to center ice later in his career in Vancouver and has played there ever since. He excelled on face-offs and was usually in sound defensive position, but the move changed his game immensely. He was much more physical on right wing. Moving up and down the wall, Linden excelled by hitting and banging. He was always at his best when he was playing physically. However at center ice, Linden did not get the chance to play the same physical game, as he remained disciplined and rarely strayed from the middle of the ice, so that he was not caught out of position should the other team get the puck. This defensive discipline also hurt Trevor's offensive output. He no longer drove to the net as hard as he would if he were on the wing, again sacrificing his offensive output so that someone remains high to help out the defensemen.
Return of the hero
Linden was moved from Montreal to Washington before Brian Burke brought the Canucks' prodigal son back to Vancouver in November 2001. The one-time poster boy returned to Vancouver a hero, but accepted his diminishing status as a role player. Goals and ice time became harder to come by, but fan loyalty only grew.
Even through the tumultuous times as president of the NHLPA, Trevor Linden was always well respected around the NHL. Though his legacy with the NHLPA is somewhat stained by the Ted Saskin hiring, it was Linden who was a driving force to get the two sides to the negotiating table several times during the lost season of 2004-05. History has already overlooked the contributions of Linden during this terrible chapter in the story of hockey.
A Hockey Player's Hockey Player
On the ice he was the kind of player who's true value can never really be measured by any statistic. Rest assured those on the ice, friend and foe, had great respect for Linden's intricate abilities. He was never a great scorer but always did the small things so extremely well - a big reason for his playoff success. Linden was a big game player. In the big games it is those intangible things - faceoffs, defensive excellence, physical but disciplined play, always making the safe if unspectacular play - that make the difference between winning and losing. He was a hockey player's hockey player.
Mike Brophy wrote in The Hockey News a spectacularly wonderful article on Trevor. I'd like to share a small portion of it here:
Linden believes it is attention to detail that has helped him excel.
"People always tell me I'm a great playoff performer," Linden says, "and the only reason I can think that is, is because in the playoffs doing the little things right counts the most."
Watch Linden closely and you won't be blown away by any particular skill; his conviction and determination are his strengths. He doesn't have the hardest shot in the league, yet the puck doesn't flutter when he snaps it towards the gal. He is a deceptively fast skater. In a race for the puck, an opponent might look like he's skating quicker, but Linden often gets there first using a long, fluent stride."
You have to watch his game closely to truly appreciate his excellence. Trevor Linden was a leader. Trevor Linden was a winner. He was a winner even though he never did get to lift the Stanley Cup over his head. For many of us, the pain of 1994 endures to this day. Yet somehow, for me anyways, it is still the greatest moment in Canucks history. I would not change a thing, not even the ending. The Vancouver Canucks did not win the Stanley Cup that year. But they forever won our respect, and here in Canuckland they are immortalized for it.
Before you read this, I must confess: Trevor Linden may be my favorite player of all time.